Nurturing Craft in an Age of Content: An Interview with Alissa Wilkinson
This is the first in a series of interviews with creatives who inspire us by staying craft-focused in a era of easy-to-consume, shareable internet content. Our aim is to explore the tension of art versus entertainment, empowering readers to both find, nurture, and stay true to the stories inside of them. Enjoy!
If you haven't noticed our blatant shout-outs on every social media outlet, we're pretty big fans of author, film and TV critic, and professor Alissa Wilkinson. We particularly jive with her ability to find transforming threads of meaning in pop culture along with her mad skills in toggling between faith-based and mainstream media outlets while staying true to her craft and her message. Her new book, How to Survive the Apocalypse, was published by Eerdmans in May of this year, and you should probably buy it.
Alissa was gracious enough to answer some questions we had about how it all goes down, which we've printed below.
Upwrite Magazine: You've been able to make your career as a cultural critic, often evaluating film and television through the lens of the Christian tradition. Your recent book speaks to the anxieties of living in an age of primal fear and social instabilities. As a critic, how do you merge the Christian themes of Hope with the grim realities of what we see playing out on our televisions, on movie screens, and even reflected in our own non-scripted, lived realities?
Alissa Wilkinson: The interesting thing about writing the book was discovering that the apocalypse has always been an inherently hopeful thing for humans. Really, stories of apocalypse are about hitting the reset button (think, for instance, of the Noah narrative in the Bible) -- one era ending, making space for the new. The difference with our apocalyptic stories today is that they are often dystopian: apocalypse without the resulting renewal. The most interesting and encouraging thing is that often those stories aren't really able to sustain the dystopia; eventually, we crave closure and renewal, and frequently our entertainment eventually gets there in the end.
So apocalypse is inherently Christian, and I am both hopeful for renewal and hopeful for a culture that still wants to tell stories like those, that feels it's own mettle enough to know it needs to be renewed. I don't think Christians have anything to fear at all. That alone should make us hopeful.
Upwrite: You're the critic-at-large for Christianity Today, but you also write for mainstream publications like Rolling Stone and Pacific Standard. What are some of the specific difficulties of maintaining an identity as both a person of a faith and a respected critic?
AW: There are much fewer difficulties than most people seem to assume. I've rarely been in a situation where being an openly Christian person and a critic has hampered my work in any way. In fact, I think it's often been a subtle advantage; I offer a perspective -- winsomely, I hope -- that is still in the minority in the mainstream cultural conversation, and most people find that interesting because it is still a minority voice. I also love great films and TV shows on their own terms, and that is somewhat rare among Christian criticism: taking for granted that culture is worth enjoying and celebrating, rather than pretending it's something we can choose to engage with or not. To Christians, sometimes, my voice and others who write like me is a translating voice, helping sort out culture through a lens we share. To mainstream audiences, I can act like an Instagram filter that illuminates bits of the picture you wouldn't have seen otherwise.
Upwrite: People might assume that "watching movies" is most of what your writing research entails. But that's only a small part of the immersive work that you do. What are some of the specific books/resources that you return to in order to keep your craft sharp? Was there a particular book or resource that proved invaluable to your insight in How to Survive the Apocalypse?
AW: How to Survive the Apocalypse is based on Charles Taylor's book The Ethic of Authenticity, so I was of course reading that all the time. There are a few books on criticism I return to (C.S. Lewis's An Experiment in Criticism, A.O. Scott's recent Better Living Through Criticism) and authors who are great models; some of my favorite critics are Roger Ebert, Janet Malcolm, Wesley Morris, Emily Nussbaum, Zadie Smith, and a whole host of my buddies who write for various publications and whom I try to keep up with as best I can. I read the New York Review of Books pretty consistently, as well as Books & Culture, and I try to read a broad range of criticism. And I am always trying to read older books, especially novels from the early and mid-twentieth century, for whatever reason.
Upwrite: How does teaching the craft of creative writing to college students grow and stretch you in your own gift of communicating?
AW: Teaching is my "real job" -- I'm starting my seventh year as a full-time college professor -- and it's invaluable, partly because I teach criticism and criticism-adjacent topics like cultural anthropology and postmodern theory. Talking with my students is a great way to generate new ideas and fresh takes. I teach my criticism writing course like a creative writing workshop -- because criticism is an art, closely related to other forms of creative nonfiction -- and that helps me continually refine my theories about criticism and culture more generally. Plus, I think most writers (including myself) are essentially introverted, and teaching is a great way to get outside your own head.
Upwrite: What is the writing and editing process like for you, specifically for your new book? How does nourishing your craft as a writer affect you as a whole person?
AW: There are two things people tell all writers: write every day, and be careful about writer's block. I don't write every day. I write when I have a deadline, which is often, but I can't just sit down and write for an hour and walk away. I can't get a full argument together like that. In grad school I developed the habit of writing on Fridays, and that still sticks, though it's bled into other days too now because the quantity of work has gone up. I don't get much time to revise, so I've learned to write very efficient first drafts whenever possible. And I think writer's block is a combination of fear and perfectionism that's a luxury for non-journalists, and I just don't have time (or patience) for it.
In some ways I can't imagine what it really means to nourish my craft as a writer, beyond reading, talking with students, and conversing with smart friends who know more than me. Probably the most accurate statement is that I become more keenly aware how little I know and am always trying to drink from the fire hose of fabulous culture and ideas out there. And while I'm at it, I try to get my sentences to read nicely and my arguments to be logical, and leave the rest of up to intuition.
Thanks again to Alissa for being giving of her talent, wisdom, and time in answering our questions. You can find her book on Amazon here, venture to her personal website here, or follow her on Twitter (@alissamarie) to stay up-to-date on her most recent musings on things onscreen and off.